By: Cody Boteler, Senior Editor
I got a letter yesterday saying that the University would waive all the fees associated with the Public Information Act request that I filed on behalf of The Towerlight.
This came after I published a not-too-friendly editorial decrying TU because they wanted to charge me over $2,000 for access to public records and emails.
Since that situation as been absolved, in the issue of transparency, I’m going to explain what happened — from my perspective at The Towerlight.
We reported that a recording device had been found in the women’s swimming and diving team locker room Oct. 17. The device was found the day before.
We requested information from the University, and were told that because there was an active, ongoing investigation, there wasn’t much anyone could tell us.
Tired of waiting, I filed a Maryland Public Information Act request on Oct. 26. The full text of my request can be read here.
Some sort of a criminal activity — recording without consent — had happened on this campus, and I saw it as an issue of public importance to find out what, exactly, had happened. As of writing, we still don’t know for sure the extent of the recording, who was responsible or what kind of motive there may have been.
Ten days later, Nov. 6, I received a letter from a University attorney that told me my request had been acknowledged.
I want to point out, first, that there is no legal reason that a response was required to take that long. Ten days is not some “waiting period” that agencies have to take. It’s the maximum amount of time an agency can wait to respond.
In the letter that acknowledged my request, I was told it would take 50-55 working hours to compile the records I requested and that it would run a fee of $2,280-$2,453.07 depending on the employees involved in the search.
We were told that we should receive the documents we requested by Nov. 20 — the Friday before we all leave for Thanksgiving.
The law allows agencies to include a fee in response to requests, but it does not require them to. The law also says fees can be waived.
I immediately requested, through email, that the fees get waived. Over $2,000 is not, by any stretch, a reasonable fee to charge for accessing public records.
The Maryland Attorney General’s office, in early October, announced changes to Maryland’s PIA law. A board was created where people could formally appeal “unreasonable” charges of more than $350.
I submitted my request for a waiver at 12:46 p.m. on the same day I received the letter. My not-too-friendly editorial wasn’t published until after 10 p.m. the next Monday, and not widely shared until that Tuesday. The response, that said the fee would be waived, hit my inbox at 4:13 p.m. on Tuesday.
Had I received a response sooner, my previous editorial would not have been so vivid. I do not think expecting a response within two business days is unreasonable.
In the interim, while I waited for a response from the University, I contacted the Student Press Law Center and another reporter from the area — as a sort of “back up.” If I was going to have to fight TU on these charges, I wanted some people in my corner.
By the time the editorial was widely shared, I had received offers of help and words of advice from other local reporters. I was blown away by the show of solidarity in the local community.
I am very happy that the University decided to waive the fees associated with my information request. I am glad that, finally, this locker room story may see some developments.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I report on this school because I care about it. I push for information because I want this school to be the best that it can be.
It’s not fun bringing attention to the things that aren’t going well here. My favorite stories to write are the ones where things are going great.
But, at times, talking about things that aren’t going great is the only way to bring change.